Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Do you recall the 1954 London Mithraeum dig?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

It all began in 1952 when a team of archaeologists from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council dug a few exploratory trenches on a construction site in central London’s Walbrook Square. Victorian buildings on the site had been all but leveled by German bombs during the Blitz. The ruins were slated to be demolished a new office block for an insurance company to be built at the location. The only reason archaeologists were there is that the lost river Walbrook had once flowed through the area so the site was surveyed to record alluvial deposits that would establish how the Walbrook changed over time. Informative, but far from glamorous.

For two years the excavation, led by Welsh archaeologist Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams, puttered along drawing no interest whatsoever. They were almost done when the team unearthed the walls and floors of a stone building from the Roman period. They thought it was a private villa or maybe a public building until in mid-September they found an altar at one end that identified the structure as a temple. As historically significant a find as it was, it was still slated to be destroyed to make way for the ugly new grey box of offices.

Then on Saturday, September 18th, 1954, the last day of the excavation, a marble head of the god Mithras, identifiable by his characteristic Phrygian cap, was found. The handsome young deity would have gone unnoticed too if it hadn’t been for a newspaper photographer from nearby Fleet Street who was on the spot and took some pictures. They were printed the next day in The Sunday Times and caused an immediate sensation.

For weeks it was front page news. Immense crowds flocked to the site to see the temple, an estimated 400,000 people in total. The question of the temple’s dire fate was now a national scandal. It was debated in Parliament and twice in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The problem was nobody had the money to preserve the temple in situ. The government was broke and the developers couldn’t afford to move the planned building. Ultimately a compromise was worked out: the Ministry of Works would fund additional excavation and the developers would pay to remove the temple and reconstruct it at ground level for public display.

The extended excavations unearthed more sculptures — a group including Minerva, the hand of Mithras and a head of Serapis that were deliberately buried under the nave perhaps to keep them safe from depredation or as a respectful deposition when the temple was rebuilt and re-dedicated to the god Bacchus. Pottery from the earliest layers indicates the Mithraeum was first built around 240 A.D. It was extensively reconstructed in 350 A.D. after which it remained in use until the end of the Roman period.

The sculptures were conserved and put on display in the Museum of London where they joined a relief of Mithras slaying the Bull of Heaven that had been unearthed at Walbrook in 1889. The relief has an inscription that may shed light on the temple’s construction: “Ulpius Silvanus / Emeritus Leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae) / Votum Solvit / Factus Arausione” meaning “Ulpius Silvanus / veteran of the Second August Legion / paid his vow / made at Orange.” “Made” in this case doesn’t refer to the relief sculpture, but rather to Ulpius Silvanus himself, either he was discharged (made a veteran) or initiated into the Mithraic religion (made a devotee of Mithras). The Walbrook Mithraeum itself could be the vow he paid.

The temple was rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street, 300 feet or so from its find site and 30 feet above its original depth. The ancient masonry was put back together using modern cement mortar on a crazy-paving floor. The original floor was wood. We know this because some of the joists were found during the excavation thanks to the preserving power of the waterlogged Walbrook soil. It looked … weird, to put it generously, out of place and squat and not at all like it had looked in situ. Grimes said the 1962 rebuild was “virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum.”

In December 2010, Bloomberg LP bought the Walbrook Square site to build its new European headquarters. The archaeological survey has retread some of the same ground as the Grimes excavation but has found oh so much more amazingness. The new complex will integrate the archaeological discoveries into the construction, and the Temple of Mithras will be part of that plan. In 2011, stonemasons carefully dismantled the reconstructed temple, removing the 1960s concrete and carefully storing the original Roman stone and tile. It will be rebuilt with a care for authenticity this time, installed 25 feet below ground level in the same spot where it was found. The underground space will be a public exhibition area in the Bloomberg building. The building is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

The Museum of London is collaborating with Bloomberg to ensure the Walbrook Mithraeum re-reconstruction is done properly this time. The museum has extensive records from 1954, but they have no extant color images of the temple in situ. In order to get as many details as possible about the temple, both for the reconstruction and to more thoroughly document this exceptional find while people who remember it are still around, the museum is collecting oral histories, pictures, home movies, ephemera about the 1954 dig.

They’re also hoping someone somewhere may have some actual pieces of Roman stone or mortar. At the time, construction workers and visitors were known to have pilfered themselves some souvenirs, so there could well be something very important cluttering up people’s attics that they may not even realize. Anything that reveals the original color of the stones, bricks, tiles and mortar would be very helpful. The oral histories, images, etc. will be included as part of the Temple exhibition in the Bloomberg building.

If you have any memories, information, images or souvenirs of the 1954 excavation, email the Museum of London at oralhistory@mola.org.uk or call them at 020 7410 2266 during office hours.

Now, thanks to the ever-delightful Pathé archive, please enjoy two newsreels about the dig. The first is a short clip of the excavation site. The fellow with the glasses is Harold Plenderleith, a pioneering conservator and archaeologist who part of the team who excavated King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Sir Leonard Woolley’s digs at Ur, and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. How’s that for an archaeological trifecta?

A more detailed look at the sculptures recovered and their conservation:

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MoMA finds lost 1913 film with all-black cast

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

New York City’s Museum of Modern Art has discovered footage of a previously unknown 1913 film with vaudeville and Broadway pioneer Bert Williams starring in a cast of all black actors. It’s not a completed film that a movie theater would have received, but rather seven reels of unassembled daily rushes, multiple takes from each scene, that the director and editor would later edit together into the finished picture. The museum discovered the footage in its collection of 900 negatives from the Biograph studios that were rescued from destruction by MoMA’s first film curator, Iris Barry, when the company’s Bronx warehouse closed in 1939.

It is the earliest surviving film to feature an all-black cast, and is among the earliest ever shot. The Foster Photoplay Company, a Chicago film production company founded in 1910 by theatrical promoter and entertainment journalist William Foster, released what is thought to be the first all-black picture, The Railroad Porter, in June of 1913. MoMA researchers discovered that the Bert Williams film was shot in September of 1913. None of the early Foster Photoplay movies have survived. (Unrelated but interesting coincidence: William Foster worked as a publicity promoter for Bert Williams and his partner George Walker’s groundbreaking 1903 musical In Dahomey, the first full-length musical comedy written and performed by African-Americans to be staged in a Broadway theater, and its equally successful 1906 follow-up Abyssinia.)

Unlike the Foster pictures which were created, shot and performed by black artists, only the actors in the recently discovered footage were black. They were employed by the famed Biograph Company, the film production company which launched the careers of D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Mabel Normand and Lionel Barrymore. Biograph hired Bert Williams, who by then was hugely famous for his vaudeville routines, musicals and best-selling song recordings, to star in their all-black comedies. He had to wear blackface, which is as incongruous as it is gross considering that none of the other actors (that I can see in the stills, at least) are in blackface.

Even though it includes elements of minstrelsy, the general subject matter and approach does appear to be more in keeping with the “race films” that Foster and other black producers made to counter the ugly stereotypical caricatures of on-screen minstrel pictures.

Of historical relevance is the display of adult romantic feelings between black performers, which was largely considered unacceptable to white audiences into the first two decades of the 20th century. In the film, a repeated, lengthy kiss between Williams and his costar appears to be the earliest surviving portrayal of a serious romantic relationship between black characters on film. The film also features a lengthy early example of African American vernacular dance, with a nearly two-minute, full-cast performance of a cakewalk, the dance that Williams and partners George Walker and Aida Overton Walker had made an international sensation with theater audiences and the white upper class around 1900.

Although no main title, intertitles, script, or production credits have survived with the film, MoMA’s curators tried to reconstruct the film’s narrative, ultimately piecing together what appears to be a middle-class comedy centered on the membership of Williams’s character in a black social club, with an additional plotline concerning Williams and rival suitors vying for the hand of the local beauty after a day of fairground activities, a bit of larceny, and a night of exhibition dancing.

The plot and characters of the film aren’t the only historically significant elements of this find. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the black cast interacting with the white crew on set in New York City and on location in what curators believe is Englewood, New Jersey.

The unedited rushes and MoMA’s research will go on display at the museum’s 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History exhibition on October 24th. The assembled footage will be screened at MoMA’s 12th annual film preservation festival To Save and Project on November 8th.

Meanwhile, here’s a 1916 Biograph picture starring Bert Williams that has survived intact. As with the cakewalk scene in the recently discovered film, A Natural Born Gambler features one of Bert Williams’ most famous vaudeville routines. It’s the final scene of the picture (beginning at 19:30) in which Williams pantomimes an entire poker game alone.

The Internet Archive, bless its generous heart, has an impressive collection of Bert Williams’ music. His recordings were wildly successful, selling in the hundreds of thousands back when a record that moved 10,000 copies was considered a best-seller. His most famous was probably Nobody, but my favorite is 1920′s When The Moon Shines on The Moonshine both because it’s catchy and because it’s such a perfect little window into the first year of Prohibition.

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17th c. Codex Chimalpahin returned to Mexico

Friday, September 19th, 2014

The Codex Chimalpahin, a seminal three-volume handwritten indigenous history of pre-Hispanic and 16th century Mexico, has returned to Mexico after almost 200 in the archives of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The codex was slated to be sold at a Christie’s auction in London on May 21st of this year. Before the sale, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) contacted Christie’s in the hope they could acquire the codex privately. The BFBS was glad to work with them so that this founding document of national significance could go home.

The day before the auction, INAH became the delighted new owner of the Codex Chimalpahin. The three volumes arrived in Mexico on August 18th, 2014, where they were secured in the vault of the National Library of Anthropology and History. On September 17th, the Codex Chimalpahin was welcomed home in an official ceremony attended by officials from the government, INAH and the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA). The next day the Codex Chimalpahin went on display in the Mexican Codices: Memories and Knowledge exhibition at the MNA along with 43 other codices from the National Library vault that have never been exhibited to the public before.

The Codex Chimalpahin is considered the first history of Mexico. It’s a collection of several chronicles, calendars, lists of rulers, locations, accounts of the Spanish conquest and more written in Nahuatl and Spanish. Prominent in the first two volumes are the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (b. between 1568 and 1580 – d. 1648), a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, rulers of Texococo, and of Cuitláhuac, the penultimate ruler of Tenochtitlan. He was heir to their titles and property, but unfortunately there wasn’t much of the latter. Educated in Nahuatl and Spanish, Alva Ixtlilxochitl had a profound knowledge of his ancestors’ oral histories, songs and traditions. He worked his whole life for the people who ruled the land his fathers had ruled as a translator and historian. He died in poverty.

The Historia Chichimeca. a history of the Nahua peoples through the Spanish conquest from the Texoca perspective, is Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s most enduring work. It’s in the Codex along with several other of his writings. They are the only surviving copies of his histories in his own handwriting. Volume One even has his signature.

Most of Volume Three was written by Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin (b. 1579 — d. 1660), a Nahuatl historian who also claimed to be a descendant of Aztec rulers. His Nahuatl names mean “Runs Swiftly with a Shield” (Chimalpahin) and “Rises Like an Eagle” (Quauhtlehuanitzin), and the first of them gives the codex its name. His writings were not commissioned by the Spanish viceroys, unlike Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s. They were written in Nahuatl for Nahuatl readers. There are only six of his works extant in his own handwriting. The other five were already in public institutions and now this last one is as well.

The manuscripts were compiled and bound into three volumes by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (b. 1645 – d. 1700), a poet, historian, former Jesuit, philosopher and all-around intellectual born in Mexico City of Spanish parents. He had a particular interest in the indigenous cultures and created a legendary library of native documents, including manuscripts by Chimalpahin and Alva Ixtlilxochitl. He in fact became good friends with Don Juan, the son of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who gifted him many of his father’s works to thank him for his help in a lawsuit against Spanish settlers trying to steal his property near the great pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacan. After Don Juan died, he bequeathed the rest of his collection to Sigüenza.

Much of Sigüenza’s famed library was acquired by Italian-born antiquary and ethnographer Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (b. ca. 1702 – d. ca. 1753). Benaduci fell afoul of the Spanish viceroy and in 1743 he was arrested and his collection impounded. Although eventually Benaduci was absolved and the King ruled his collection should be returned to him, it never was. During the years it was kept in the office of the viceroyalty, it was horribly neglected and many items disappeared. Parts of the collection can be found in the Berlin State Library, the National Library in Paris and the National Museum of Anthropology.

The Codex Chimalpahin fell into the hands of priest, politician, historian José María Luis Mora Lamadrid (b. 1794 – d. 1850). One of his favored political causes was national literacy. To further that aim, in 1827 he made what seems like a completely insane deal with James Thomsen of the British and Foreign Bible Society: already rare original handwritten works by Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Chimalpahin in return for a bunch of Protestant Bibles to be used in a national literacy campaign.

The codex was never published or even studied. Once it left Mexico, scholars who would seek out such a source had no idea where it was. It was considered lost until it showed up like magic in the Christie’s sale. Now it’s on display in Mexico and, once the exhibition ends in January, it will be made available to researchers at the National Library of Anthropology and History.

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Peabody Essex Museum acquires gorgeous 18th c. Indian textile collection

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has acquired a rare collection of 18th century Indian textiles that are in such spectacular condition that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made yesterday. Made in the early 1700s for export to the Netherlands, the cotton chintz textiles include jackets, men’s dressing gowns (banyans), women’s dressing gowns (wentkes), children’s caps and bed coverlets known as palampores both hand-painted and embroidered.

Woman's jacket, mid-18th century India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Jacket, pieced from three patterns of chintz: sleeves from a chintz with a red background and large pink flowers and leaves (lined with a European floral print), and the bodice from an Indian chintz with a white background and red flowers and vines, and a European printed cotton with small floral vines. The bodice is lined and padded with cotton. The jacket is trimmed with silk velvet and Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband), stitched with silk thread, and fitted with brass hook-and-eye fasteners. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

There are about 170 textiles in the collection, all assembled by historian Alida Eecen-van Setten between 1927 and 1969. Some she bought from antiques dealers, others she scavenged from the trash, documenting every acquisition in her “chintz book.” She shared her collection with fabric designers who used the patterns in their creations and with other historians, keeping the chintz book current as new research suggested different dates. After her death, her granddaughter Lieke Veldman-Planten took charge of the textiles and the book. The collection is named after both women: the Veldman-Eecen Collection.

Woman’s dressing gown (Wentke), Coromandel Coast, India, ca. 1740
Constructed in Hindeloopen, The Netherlands, mid-18th century. Cotton, resist-dyed and painted; gown, lined with linen, trimmed with Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband). Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The textiles are decorated with vibrantly colored floral motifs that began as naturalistic garden scenes commissioned by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, in the 16th century but had become stylized botanicals by the reign of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, in the 17th century. They were hand-painted and fixed using mordant and resist dying techniques that ensured the bright colors of natural dyes like red madder and blue indigo held fast without fading. Nothing in Europe could compare to the intensity and durability of Indian colors.

Portuguese traders began exporting Indian textiles in the 1500s, but it was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that began large scale exports in the 17th century. It started out as a branch of the spice trade since Indian cloth was used as currency in Indonesia and the Spice Islands. Merchants would buy textiles with European bullion, trade some of them for spices and then sell both the cloth and the spices in Europe. By the late 17th century, England, France and the Dutch Republic each imported more than a million pieces of chintz a year.

Many textile words in English are imports from India. Bandanas were Bengal handkerchiefs sold as neck cloths to sailors and laborers; chintz comes from the word “chitra” meaning “spotted.” Calico, khaki, gingham, dungarees, pyjamas, and my personal favorite, seersucker, are all Indian words for textiles and garments that became ubiquitous in Europe during the heyday of the textile trade.

Woman's breast yoke, ca. 1750, India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. The front and back of the yoke are constructed from large, vibrant pieces of the same chintz in red, blue, purple, yellow, and green. The shoulders are pieced from several smaller fragments of a different chintz pattern. The yoke is lined with linen, fitted with cotton tape ties and brass rings, and possibly decorated with gold thread. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The explosion of popularity of imported textiles sent local cotton producers into a tailspin. France prohibited the import of chintz in 1686; England followed suit in 1720, prohibiting not just its import but also its use in furniture, bedding and clothing. Demand remained high, however, and as inevitably happens with prohibitions of pretty much any kind, making the importation of Indian chintz illegal just created a burgeoning black market.

Ultimately it was duplication and industrialization starting in the late 18th century that killed the Indian export textile trade. Machine-printing and synthetic dyes made possible the speedy manufacture of large quantities of cheap fabrics. Expensive imports couldn’t compete.

Palampore, mid-18th century
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Alida Eecen-van Setten’s interest in collecting and documenting these textiles was unusual at the time. Formerly fashionable consumer goods weren’t popular subjects for historians, and keeping 200-year-old organic fabrics from decaying is not an easy thing. There are very few 18th century chintzes available on the antiquities market (or in dumpsters) today. Her taste, persistence and dedication saved these exquisite textiles for a time when they could be appreciated as the museum pieces they are. She collected in such depth that the collection today is pretty much ideal for museum display. There are 15 chintz baby caps, for example, so the museum will be able to rotate them in and out of public view to keep them all in optimal condition.

In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum will partner with no less illustrious an institution than the Rijksmuseum for an exhibition about the Dutch East India Company’s vast and influential trade in Asian imports. The Veldman-Eecen Collection will feature prominently in the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition that will run in Amsterdam from October 16th, 2015 until January 17th, 2016, after which it will travel to the Peabody Essex.

Embroidered Palempore, early 18th century
Cotton, embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped threads. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

 

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Save the Wedgwood Collection

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

The Wedgwood Collection isn’t just one of the largest and most complete collections of ceramic in the world with more than 8,000 pieces from Josiah Wedgwood I’s early experiments on materials and glazes to examples of every design manufactured from 1950 through the present. It’s a vast archive of art, industrial design, business records, pattern books, photographs, correspondence, more than 80,000 documents that cover the history of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the English Enlightenment, the anti-slavery movement, commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, trade, politics, science, and so much more. It’s no wonder the collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register in 2011.

Josiah Wedgwood himself, founder of the pottery company that would become the first industrially manufactured ceramic producer om the world, started the collection in 1774. He wrote his business partner Thomas Bentley:

“I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this because I did not begin it 10 years sooner. I am now, from thinking and talking a little more upon this subject … resolv’d to make a beginning.”

And so he did, going far beyond just saving examples of his ceramics ensuring that his already impressive legacy would include one of the most important industrial archives the world has ever known. In 1906, collection was put on permanent public display at Etruria, the Staffordshire estate that had served as both Wedgwood family home and factory site since Josiah bought it in 1766. It was moved in 1940 to keep it safe during the war, and reopened in a new gallery in 1952. Since then it has expanded into a vast purpose-built museum complex with picture gallery to display the Wedgwood family’s extensive collection of paintings, a ceramics gallery, screening room and visitors center. It has a great website too, with a searchable database of objects complete with nice big pictures.

Although the Wedgwood family planned to completely separate the Wedgwood Museum Trust from the company in 1961, for some reason they never were fully severed. This oversight became a catastrophe when Waterford Wedgwood went into administration in January of 2009. The company carried a £134 million ($218,000,000) pensions liability which was transferred to the solvent museum because five of its employees participated in the shared pension plan. Even the trust going into administration could not stop its assets from being targeted to repay the pension fund debt. A 2011 High Court ruling held that the Wedgwood Collection was an asset of the Wedgwood Museum and therefore could be sold to repay the pension fund. In 2012 the attorney general upheld the decision.

To prevent the breakup of this historic and irreplaceable collection and its piecemeal sale to the highest bidder, the Art Fund determined that it must raise the money to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection to keep it intact and on display. The price tag is a whopping £15.75 million ($25,617,000), an impressive £13.1 million of which has already been raised thanks to contributions from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other private trusts and foundations.

The outstanding £2.74 million has to be raised by the end of November or the Wedgwood Collection will be sold off. The Art Fund has started a campaign asking for donations from the public to cover this last bit of ground. You can donate online here. That page also has information for donations by mail, text or phone. Every donation will be matched by private donors, so whatever you can give is worth double. To find out more about the collection and keep up with campaign news, bookmark the Art Fund’s Save the Wedgwood Collection website.

If the money is raised on time, the Art Fund will gift the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A will then return it to the Wedgwood Museum on permanent long-term loan. Nary a vase will be moved from its current location. The transfer will be a legal one, not a physical one, and it will ensure that the entire Wedgwood Collection is safe and sound in public hands and on public display in perpetuity.

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Smithsonian traces pieces of Star-Spangled Banner

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Sunday, Saturday 14th, is the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s penning of the poem that would become the national anthem of the United States. Fort McHenry, target of the British bombardment during the Battle of Baltimore that inspired Key’s poem, is hosting a panoply of commemorative events this weekend, culminating in the Dawn’s Early Light Flag-Raising Ceremony at 8:30 Sunday morning. The historically accurate replica of Mary Pickersgill’s flag made by Maryland Historical Society volunteers last year will be hoisted at the ceremony, a stand-in for the original flag. If you’re not going to be in Baltimore this weekend, you can enjoy some of the rockets’ red glare, air shows, flag-raising and fireworks via webcam.

The original Star-Spangled Banner is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s so delicate it is kept in perpetual semi-darkness (no more than one foot-candle of light) in a custom display case that cost $30 million dollars to make. The two-storey chamber is climate controlled and keeps the flag free of oxygen and vibrations. The flag is angled at 10 degrees, enough so people can view it without subjecting the banner to the drag of gravity.

One of the reasons the flag is in such a delicate condition is that for years people snipped off souvenirs from it. The Smithsonian has a number of snippets in storage, including a red and white fragment that was once on display at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Other fragments may be out there in the hands of people who don’t know what they have. The Smithsonian can examine these fragments to help identify them.

With Maryland celebrating its Defenders’ Day on Friday and America’s victory over the British 200 years ago Sunday, at least two families recently inquired whether their fragments might have historical value.

Museum conservators are using microscopes, x-rays and other equipment to analyze their weaves, stains and soils to see if they match. Family histories and documents also help prove provenance.

Since the flag came to the Smithsonian in 1907, about 17 pieces have been donated or bought at auction. The museum last acquired pieces in 2003 but has no plans to try to recover them all or reattach them to the original flag.

It would be impossible to reattach most of the pieces. How could you tell where a postage-stamp sized piece of white, for example, originally fit on the flag? Curators would love to see one particular fragment reappear, however. There were 15 stars on the flag when Mary Pickersgill’s team made the flag. One of them was cut out before June 21st, 1873 when the flag was photographed on display at the Boston Navy Yard.

“We’d love to have that back,” said the flag’s chief conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss. “That one I might put back on.”

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New exhibition of ancient sculpture in technicolor

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

On Saturday, September 13th, a new exhibition about polychromy in ancient art opens at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket in Copenhagen. It’s not the first time the museum has put on a show focusing on the vibrant colors of ancient art and architecture. Gods in Color was hugely popular, traveling from the Munich Glyptothek to the Carlsberg Glyptoket to the Vatican Museums in 2004 and then moving on to other countries in Europe, reaching the United States in 2007. New research and advances in technology since then have allowed for a more precise understanding of the evolution and extent of ancient polychromy, which is what Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour will explore.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket has an extensive collection of ancient Mediterranean art (the largest in northern Europe, in fact), so between its own sculptures and loans from other museums, the exhibition features 120 original sculptures and color reconstructions, a geometric expansion of the 20 pieces in the 2004 exhibition. The interdisciplinary research traces the history of painted sculpture touching on the Egyptians much of whose painted works have survived, before zeroing in on Greek and Roman sculpture which was subjected to brutal destruction of its polychrome remnants by the post-Renaissance obsession with phony white marble Classicism.

The research underpinning the exhibition has been a cooperative enterprise of the museum with institutions like the Archaeology Foundation of Munich, home of the von Graeve research team in ancient color which has been pioneering the study of polychromy on Roman and Greek art and architecture since the 1970s. It’s an interdisciplinary pursuit pairing archaeologists with conservators, artists, and cutting edge technology like infrared reflectography and electron microscopy to identify and replicate the remnants of color on the original sculptures.

The exhibition at the Glyptotek shows spectacular original works juxtaposed with experimental reconstructions in their original wealth of colour, the shocking sensuality of which, at one and the same time, makes Antiquity both more present and remote. In the course of the exhibition the story of the development of colour in the art of sculpture unfolds; from the first, very insistent, but extremely effective use of strong local colours on marble, towards a higher and more refined degree of naturalism. At the same time the exhibition shows that our reading of the classical motifs sometimes changes radically when the sculptures appear in colour.

The Glyptotek has uploaded some nifty videos about the exhibition. First a simple introduction:

The next explains how we can tell that sculptures were painted, ie, by direct evidence — actual remnants of color visible to the eye — and indirect evidence — uneven weathering depending on the durability of the pigment, clearly missing elements in a relief that suggests they were once painted on, naturalistic inlaid stone eyes that would have been matched with naturalistic color on the rest of the figure.

In this video the artist experiments with a variety of natural pigments and binders, and then confers with the archaeologist and a conservator to decide which approach to take.

There is a fourth video that I gather describes how researchers scan the sculptures looking for microscopic traces of color, but so far it is only available in unsubtitled Danish. I’ve emailed the museum asking for an English version and I’ll update the post when I hear back. Meanwhile, here’s the original version which is still worth watching for the pretty pictures. If you can understand Danish, please do tell us what they’re saying in a comment or email me via the contact form.

The catalogue of the exhibition is available in English from the museum shop and online here for 249 Danish Krone, about $43. (That includes VAT but not shipping, which to the US is a gulpworthy 199 Krone, or $35.) It features articles by experts in the field with the latest research about ancient Roman and Greek polychromy and is “profusely illustrated.” Pardon me while I dab a lace hanky at my drool.

There’s also a coloring book so you can paint some of the sculptures in the exhibition to your own taste, but sadly you can only order it as part of a bundle with the Danish-language catalogue. I’ll tell you, I’m still tempted to get it even though it would push this venture well into the absurdly extravagant range. I just really, really love coloring, and it’s so irresistibly apt in this context.

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Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen and recipe

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Since the restored Hampton Court Palace royal Chocolate Kitchen reopened to the public on Valentine’s Day of this year, it has been very popular with visitors. The palace website now has a great section about the Chocolate Kitchens and have recently uploaded a couple of fascinating videos.

The first covers the kitchen’s history, its rediscovery and the intense work that went into recreating the Georgian environment.
It was William III who introduced chocolate drinking to England when he arrived from Holland in 1689. He installed the Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen. It’s the only royal chocolate kitchen surviving today, but documents record him building chocolate kitchens at Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle as well. Subsequent monarchs continued the practice, each retaining his own chocolate maker who would travel with the court from palace to palace. It ended with George III who hated Hampton Court Palace and refused to set foot in the place; his successors followed in his footsteps

The reason nobody knew where the Chocolate Kitchen was is that after it stopped being used to make chocolate for the monarch and queen, it was used as a kitchen for the Grace and Favour Apartments where other members of the royal family sometimes lived. By the Victorian era when the palace was opened to the public, the existence of the Chocolate Kitchen had become a legend like the stories of ghosts and scandals used to attract visitors. Besides, many buildings had been demolished since Georgian times and a devastating fire in 1986 had caused much damage.

Then, in 2013, curatorial intern Charlotte Barker found an 18th century inventory document written after the death of William III that recorded every room in the palace and their locations, including the Chocolate Kitchen. It was known simply as Door Eight to the curators. It had been used as storeroom for the annual Hampton Court summer flower show and was filled with racks, pots, vases, steel shelves.

They figured the room would have been bare bones, all the original chocolate-making accessories long gone. When they removed the clutter, however, they found the full Georgian chocolate kitchen, with original shelves on the wall, the fireplace with a smoke jack inside the chimney, a prep table that folded down from the wall, a cupboard, and the Georgian version of a stove top: a pair of charcoal braziers in a brick housing. Charcoal was placed under the grates and then copper pots placed on top to melt the chocolate with whatever liquids (water, milk, liquor) and spices for the beverage.

A smoke jack, also known as a turnspit, is a mechanism that uses hot air rising from the fireplace up the chimney to turn a fan which turns a pinion that turns wheels that turn a chain that turns a spit over the fire. The one in the the chocolate kitchen wasn’t used to roast pheasants and great joints of beef, but only for roasting the chocolate beans. An automated roasting device was extremely high tech for any kitchen, never mind one dedicated solely to the production of chocolate.

Once the beans were roasted, the nuts were shelled and the innermost bits, the cocoa nibs, were made into chocolate. The curved slab of granite used as a mortar to grind the cocoa nibs would be placed over the brazier to keep it warm during the grinding process. Once the grind was smooth, the chocolate would be formed into flat discs and stored for a month for the flavors to meld.

Just down the hall from the kitchen is the Chocolate Room. It too was being used for storage but unfortunately wasn’t kept in pristine condition underneath the clutter. The late 18th century fireplace and barred windows were all that was left of the original fittings. They were able to recreate the shelves from the marks on the walls indicating where they had once been and were also able to restore damaged fireplace iron tools.

The real trick was outfitting the Chocolate Room with all the gear — chocolate pots, wooden whisks called molinets that were threaded through holes in the lids of the serving pots to give the beverage a nice froth, china and delftware cups, frames the cups were placed in, glass sweetmeat vessels — that were needed to present the royals with their delicious and luxurious beverage. The palace curators enlisted craftsmen who use the traditional methods so everything is as historically accurate as possible. Pewterer David Williams used period antique bronze and lead molds to make replicas of Georgian chocolate pots in the Ashmolean and V&A Museums, only the new pieces were are out of pewter instead of the silver and gold of the royal court originals.

Chocolate was often served with breakfast or after dinner and sweetmeats would have been among the foods on offer. Glassmaker Mark Taylor made the replica sweetmeat jars. Hampton Court Palace archaeological collection includes fragments of original chocolate cups. They were used by potter John Hudson to reproduce the exact cups the Georgian royal family drank out of.

It’s fascinating to see the archivists, curators, craftsmen and food historian at work recreating the Chocolate Kitchen and Room.

If you want to try your own hand a Georgian style chocolate beverage, food historian Marc Meltonville has a fabulous instructional video on how to make Chocolate Port. He’s working in the Hampton Court Palace chocolate kitchen using the reproduction period tools and the chocolate he roasted and ground from the whole pod. It’s so hardcore. For the rest of who are not so cool, we can follow along starting with store bought chocolate that’s 80% or more cocoa solids.

The recipe calls for a pint of port to one ounce of pure chocolate, so teetotalers be warned. I’m guessing this was more for the after supper chocolate service rather than the breakfast of champions.

Here’s a written version of the Chocolate Port recipe (pdf), plus a 1692 recipe for the pure chocolate discs (pdf) that were the basis of all the goodies, and a very yummy looking chocolate cream dessert (pdf) from George I’s 1716 royal cookbook

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Rediscovered Ur skeleton on public view at Penn Museum

Monday, September 1st, 2014

The 6,500-year-old skeleton excavated from Ur in 1929 and rediscovered last month in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum is now on public view. It was moved from storage on Saturday to the museum’s In the Artifact Lab, glass-walled conservation lab that gives visitors the chance to see conservators at work. The focus is usually the conservation of mummies and artifacts from the museum’s Egyptian collection, but special projects from other departments also get a turn in the Artifacts Lab.

The Ur skeleton will be on partial view while on a working table inside the glass-enclosed lab space, with some images and information provided on a video screen. As soon as conservators complete their work documenting, cleaning, and stabilizing the skeleton, it will move to a display case in front of the lab; then visitors will have an opportunity to get a very up-close view.

Conservators estimate that the skeleton will be ready to move to the case by late September (date to be posted on the Museum website when known); the skeleton will stay on view through Saturday, October 18, when the Museum celebrates International Archaeology Day with a host of family activities and a chance to visit the new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials.

Museum visitors will have the opportunity to ask questions of the researchers. Every day through September 14th, a physical anthropology expert will be available from 11:00 until noon and 1:00 to 2:00 PM to answer questions. From September 16th through October 18th, an expert will be available Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 to 2:00 PM.

I love Penn Museum’s emphasis on giving their visitors immersive experiences (Touch Tours for the blind, 40 Winks with the Sphinx sleepovers for kids). The discovery of the Ur skeleton generated a lot of interest, so they set up a way for people to see him and learn more about him while conservators take care of business.

Speaking of learning more about the skeleton, Dr. William Hafford, Penn Museum’s Ur Digitization Project Manager who found the reference to the skeleton in the division lists of Sir Leonard Woolley’s Ur excavation, has written a fascinating blog entry about the history of the dig and the excavation of the skeleton. This is my favorite part:

[Woolley] covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. [...]

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted.

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Bison return to National Zoo for 125th anniversary

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Bison behind the Smithsonian Castle ca. 1886-1889You may have seen the famous picture of American bison who lived behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century. I posted it a few years ago when the Castle was damaged in an earthquake just because it’s such a charming image. What I didn’t realize at the time is that those incongruously located bison played a pivotal role in the creation of the National Zoo.

Pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer, mid-1870sIn 1886, the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist William Temple Hornaday spent three months taking a census of bison numbers by corresponding with ranchers, hunters, zookeepers, and military officers all over the country. It was widely known that the situation was dire, that all the great herds were gone, indiscriminately slaughtered by hunters, that from the 10-15 million that once roamed the range, maybe a few thousand individuals remained in the more inaccessible regions of the northern range. Hornaday’s research found that extinction loomed even closer, that instead of thousands there were probably fewer than 300 head of wild bison left in the entire United States.

William Temple HornadaySpencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, concerned that the National Museum only had a handful of ratty skins, a skeleton, a couple of heads and assorted bones in its collection, agreed to send Hornaday on a mission to secure enough specimens before there were none left to be had. Hornaday’s brief was to kill between 80 and 100 bison, possibly a third of the entire surviving population, to ensure the Smithsonian, smaller museums and future museums not yet in existence would have specimens to display and study when the bison were extinct.

Partially completed armature for taxidermy bison, drawing from Hornaday's 1891 book "Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting"This is a passage from a letter Hornaday wrote to Baird in December of 1886 reporting on the team’s success:

I consider that we have been extremely lucky in finding a sufficient number of buffalo where it was supposed by people generally that none existed. Our “outfit” has been pronounced by old buffalo hunters “The luckiest outfit that ever hunted buffalo in Montana,” and the opinion is quite generally held that our “haul” of specimens could not be equaled again in Montana by anybody, no matter what their resources for the reason that the buffalo are not there. We killed very nearly all we saw and I am confident there are not over thirty-head remaining in Montana, all told. By this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all of this remnant. We got in our Exploration just in the nick of time, — the last day in the evening, so to speak, and I do not hesitate to say that I am really rejoiced over the fact that we have been successful in securing the specimens we needed so urgently.

I understand his perspective — hunters would have killed those bison anyway, so this way they were preserved for posterity at least — but my modern sensibilities can’t help but find the impulse to conserve by destruction contradictory.

Hornaday with bison calf Sandy at Smithsonian, 1886William Temple Hornaday didn’t stop there, however. He became a powerful advocate for the wild bison, realizing he had to at least try to prevent the total annihilation of the noble beast. He actually brought back a live bison, a calf he named Sandy, from his 1886 hunt, but Sandy only lived a few months. Hornaday got the idea for a national zoo and wrote to Baird proposing it. Baird was very ill and would soon pass away, so his assistant Professor George Brown Goode, appointed acting secretary until a permanent replacement could be found, picked up the mantle.

Taxidermy bison group by William Hornaday in the Smithsonian, 1887In the fall of 1887, Goode created the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum and made Hornaday its curator. Their plan was to test the public’s interest in a zoo in the capital. If people were into the test run, getting the necessary legislation passed for a full-on national zoo would be much more likely. Hornaday went off on another field trip to assemble some actual living animals and came back with 15 American natives: one cinnamon bear, one white-tailed deer, one Columbia black-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a red fox, and two spotted lynx. He set up a rather rickety group of paddocks and sheds on the National Mall and Field of Dreams-like, people came.

The Smithsonian’s mini-zoo was an instant success. Crowds flocked to see the live animals, and donors from President Grover Cleveland (he donated a golden eagle that had been given to him as a Christmas gift) to wealthy collectors quickly increased the complement of animals. In December of 1887, Hornaday wrote to Goode proposing that they obtain a nucleus of a bison herd to breed them in captivity without diluting the genes by mating them with domestic cattle (something that had been happening on ranches for years) or damaging the line by in-breeding.

In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.

To purchase the nucleus herd would be expensive, and space was going to be an issue sooner rather than later. Hornaday’s dream would become closer to reality shortly when frontier surgeon and Indian Agent Dr. Valentine Trant McGillycuddy donated a breeding pair of bison and two of their calves (one male, one female). That wasn’t enough for a breeding program, but it was a great start.

Group of bison standing in paddock near first National Zoological Park Building, a house for the bison and elk. An elk is visible in his paddock in the distance. Photograph by C.M. Bell 1891By the spring of 1888, the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum had 172 animals in its charge. The paddocks and shanties around the Smithsonian Castle could not handle the burgeoning population, and Hornaday turned his considerable energies to Congress. A Senate bill was drafted in May of 1888 proposing that $200,000 be spent buying 166 acres of Rock Creek Park for a national zoo. Hornaday testified before the House Appropriations Committee, and although his testimony was well received, a few squeaky wheels had a problem with the proposed bill. Democrat Thomas Stockdale of Mississippi told the press that a national zoo “would be of no use to the poor who come to Washington to visit the last of the buffaloes,” and the idea “does not sound like republicanism. It echoes like royalty.” The bill was defeated soundly with 36 votes in favor, 56 against and one abstention.

H.R. 11810, bill establishing national zooSo the Smithsonian’s Mall zoo had to keep making do for the foreseeable future. In December of 1888, they were forced to decline a most wonderful offer from Buffalo Bill Cody of 18 bison, the third largest private collection in the world, because they didn’t have the room for them. The tragic loss proved to be a public relations victory for the zoo since everyone was bummed at the missed opportunity. Three months later, on March 2, 1889, Grover Cleveland signed the bill establishing a National Zoo which had passed the House by a vote of 131 to 98.

Bison standing in front of the Buffalo Barn at the National Zoo, ca. 1895That wasn’t the end of the struggle. Hornaday had to fight for his vision against his new boss, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and for funding with Congress. He secured the funding, but he couldn’t persuade Langley to go along with his plans for how the zoo should be designed and operated (Hornaday wanted naturalistic enclosures that flowed with the landscape, two entrances, full public access; Langley did not). Hornaday resigned later in 1889 but kept on fighting for the conservation of the bison. His passionate advocacy took published form in his highly influential 1889 book The Extermination of the American Bison. The National Zoo opened to the public on April 30th, 1891.

William T. Hornaday in his Bronx Zoo office, 1905Five years later, William Temple Hornaday got another chance to build a zoo from the ground up. The New York Zoological Society appointed him creator and director of what would become the Bronx Zoo. He remained its director until 1926. He continued to lobby tirelessly for the conservation of the American bison and for other endangered species. Today there are 30,000 bison in conservation herds in national parks, zoos and protected areas. There are half a million in commercial herds.

Now, 125 years after their impending extinction drove the creation of a national zoo, American bison are back at the National Zoo.

 

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